How does the Undermain Theatre celebrate 29 years of mounting provocative, progressive work? By pushing ahead into its 30th
by YOLETTE GARCIA photographs by NAN COULTER
An unlikely basement space in Dallas houses one of the most experimental theater companies in the country — but, perhaps too true to its neighborhood-street name, the Undermain Theatre, one level “under” Main Street in Deep Ellum, remains below the surface. For 30 years, the Undermain has produced unconventional, thought-provoking plays that attract the best contemporary playwrights and stagecraft artists to Dallas. For audiences in the know, the company is formidable. For those who don’t know, it may be time for a trip to the basement.
Led by founders artistic director Katherine Owens and executive director Bruce DuBose, the Undermain continues to surprise, with complex and difficult works. Last season, it took on classic storytelling by going back to a time when gods played favorites and mortals struggled, a time of the Trojan War, when stories of love, loss and reintegration were immortalized by Homer nearly 3,000 years ago. Why would the Undermain, with its reputation for the avant-garde, look to ancient myths? For Owens, it was a chance to reshape familiar stories.
She and DuBose acquired the rights to Penelope by EndaWalsh and An Iliad by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, contemporary plays rooted in Homer. Everything fell into place. “I think the Iliad might be the footprint of drama,” Owens says, “the icon and the outline of all drama.” With these plays, the Undermain could bring a modern, emotional charge to age-old tales, locked in books until summoned by classroom discussions. On the stage, though, the stories would come alive with knife-sharp performances. DuBose, who acted in both productions, hit such intensity in An Iliad that people are still talking. As the Poet, he embodied Trojan and Greek characters in a one-man show. Whether invoking the rage of Achilles or the grief of Priam, DuBose shook the stage — and his performance left audiences in silence to sort through the lamentations of war.
Intimacy is part of the Undermain experience, some of it due naturally to the subterranean performance space. But theatergoers also are folded into a play’s environment through careful scenic design. For An Iliad, nationally acclaimed set designer John Arnone created a classroom with artifacts from battle encampments and chalkboards depicting Homer’s language. “An Iliad presented some astonishing challenges,” Arnone says. “The telling of any classic text is like an archaeological dig. One must excavate essential themes and structure without the text crumbling into dust.”
The larger visualization of a play is done by Owens, especially if she is directing. She does this through drawing. “I sketch to remember things,” she says. “It’s faster for me to sketch a note than to write it out. If I’m planning a play, I’ll draw every scene.” DuBose adds that Owens’ method can be startling to some actors. “It’s dark in the house, actors are rehearsing, and they think she is taking furious notes about what they are doing, but then she’ll show them a sketch.” Her love of drawing started as a kid in Odessa, where she learned about painting through books. She conceptualizes by sketching and draws moments from the productions to serve as a record for the theater. She has taken up watercolor painting recently, using her theater sketches to create new work. Adding color is important to Owens because it enhances her eye and contributes to her collaboration with set and costume designers. “They can see things I know I cannot see: pattern and color and relationship,” she says. “So every investment I make in seeing has a benefit.”
It is Owens’ ability to envision that has led the Undermain to artistic maturity. “We’re in a period of strength and refinement of our work,” she says. There is no question it has taken persistence to reach a 30th season. “When we started in ’84, Dallas was very conservative. We are not so much the beloved apostate anymore — and that’s all right, because community standards had to change for that to happen. I don’t feel we’ve changed.”
Starting this month, the Undermain Theatre begins its season — two world premieres and a regional premiere thus far — with Profanity, by artist Sylvan Oswald, Sept. 12 to Oct. 12, directed by Katherine Owens.
YOLETTE GARCIA is an assistant dean at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development. As a former broadcast journalist, she oversaw local coverage of news, arts and public affairs at KERA TV and radio.